DENPASAR, Bali - US President Barack Obama charmed Indonesia in his
long-awaited homecoming. He returned to a nation extraordinarily transformed
from the place where he chased dragonflies as schoolboy Barry Soetoro. Obama
hit all the right notes during his visit amid vivid reminders of the tasks
facing Indonesia and its evolving relationship with the US.
Ahead of the visit there were sharp undercurrents of dissatisfaction. Many here
resented that Obama had chosen to give major addresses on relations between
Islam and the West in Egypt and Turkey rather than addressing the issue first
in Indonesia, the nation with the world's largest Muslim population and to
which he has such deep personal ties.
Having Obama come here first would have helped Indonesia - and
Asia, where the Muslim population dwarfs that in the Middle East - to begin
punching its weight in global Islamic circles. It would have also highlighted a
more tolerant, moderate and inclusive form of Islam, a stark contrast to
Wahhabism and Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East, and served as a deserved
reward for Indonesia's stunning transformation to democracy after more than 30
years of military rule.
'Ich bin ein Jakartan'
By the time Obama told his audience at the University of Indonesia on Wednesday
morning "Indonesia bagian dari diri saya" - Indonesia is part of me -
much of that resentment had melted away, dissolved by the charisma Obama has
been so rarely able to summon while governing at home.
On relations between Islam and the West, the international focus of the speech,
Obama reiterated themes from his addresses Egypt and Turkey: "America is not
and never will be at war with Islam." He admitted, however, that "Relations
between the United States and Muslim communities have frayed over many years.
As president, I have made it a priority to begin to repair these relations."
Still, many Indonesians see little difference between Obama and his
predecessor, George W Bush, as US troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan and
negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians languish. Since former
Indonesian dictator Suharto's fall in 1998, Islamic hardliners have used their
new democratic freedoms to increase their numbers. Their actual power depends
on whom you talk to, but Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono draws
deserved criticism for failing to stand up to religious extremism.
The real struggle isn't between religions, Obama noted, but between moderates
and extremists. It's a lesson that applies not only to mosques among the rice
fields of Java but to churches set amid the cornfields of Iowa and quarries of
New Hampshire, where the fates of American presidential candidates are often
decided. For Obama and Yudhoyono, associating too closely with each other is
political poison domestically. Perhaps for that reason, Obama's speech was
light on mentions of Yudhoyono, Indonesia's first directly elected chief
executive who is widely expected to adhere to his constitutional two term
limit, the final step in affirming Indonesia's transition to the most
functional democracy in Southeast Asia.
Obama pivoted elegantly from Islam and the West to US-Indonesia relations,
saying: "Just as individuals are not defined solely by their faith, Indonesia
is defined by more than its Muslim population."
Shared values He effusively praised Indonesia's emerging democracy, saying: "Your
achievements demonstrate that democracy and development reinforce one another."
Obama emphasized the similarities between the US and Indonesia as large,
diverse democracies, noting that both countries' national mottos - E Pluribus
Unum (From Many One) for the US, and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in
Diversity) - are nearly identical. "Because Indonesia is made up of thousands
of islands, hundreds of languages, and people from scores of regions and ethnic
groups, my times here helped me appreciate the humanity of all people," he
The substance of Obama's visit fitted the rhetoric. He got the tricky business
out of the way in July when the US military resumed contacts with Kopassus,
Indonesia's special-forces branch. Ties were suspended in 1999 after widespread
allegations of Kopassus-led abuses in East Timor, formerly occupied by
Indonesia, and against political opponents of Suharto's authoritarian regime.
Both countries value military cooperation to encourage regional stability. They
share a keen interest in seeing China develop and grow as a cooperative Pacific
Rim partner and good neighbor, and both countries have stronger economic ties
to the Middle Kingdom than to each other. The closest thing to a harsh word
about Beijing came in Obama's repeated rejections of Chinese ally Myanmar's
sham election held on Sunday, and his praise for Indonesia's leadership in the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to push for openness in Myanmar.
Obama signed a Comprehensive Partnership Agreement between the US and Indonesia
which will bring together the existing wide range of bilateral efforts, from
economic and security cooperation to climate change measures. It also calls for
doubling student exchanges, which drew loud applause from the University of
Recently departed US ambassador to Jakarta Cameron Hume gets credit for
broadening the Bush administration's outlook beyond security and anti-terrorism
matters to so-called "soft power" issues, renamed "smart power" under Obama's
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rather than being hunkered down inside
their fortress-like embassy and consulate, US diplomats now spend much of their
time meeting Indonesian groups and media to spread the pro-democracy gospel
Obama preached to students in Jakarta.
While he was talking, events demonstrated how much work lies ahead. The natural
disasters that hit Indonesia over the past two weeks point out the continued
weakness of the government. It's not just a matter of logistics that limited
aid to victims of the tsunami in the Mentawi Islands off Sumatra's west coast
and the volcanic eruptions of Mount Merapi. The lack of preparedness is
indicative of a government mentality that believes the people are its servants,
not the other way around. Some residents around Merapi may have perished
because they were reluctant to obey evacuation orders out of fear their homes
would be looted by police.
Bad government is a fact of life in Indonesia. The long-term answer lies with
more education and exchanges, so that Indonesians can see examples of
government that works, or at least works better than their own. But that will
take a generation or two to really make a difference. With nearly half of its
240 million people living on less than US$2 a day, there's no assurance that
Indonesia can wait that long. Obama's visit, while well received, may in the
end demonstrate the limits of goodwill and good vibes to help this partnership
Longtime editor of award-winning investor rights advocate eRaider.com, Gary
LaMoshihas written for Slate and Salon.com, and works an adviser to
Writing Camp (www.writingcamp.net). He
first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has been tracking its progress ever since.